Tackling Environmental Problems I & II

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These competencies are explicitly fostered and described in Competence View.
These competencies are fostered in this course but are not explicitly described in Competence View. Please contact the responsible person for further information. Competencies in grey are fostered in this course but are generally not the focus of Competence View, which focusses on cross-disciplinary competencies.

In the first semester of the BSc course “Tackling Environmental Problems (Umweltproblemlösen)”, we place an emphasis on collaboration in groups. During the course, students will work together very autonomously in groups of 6-7, are equipped with a detailed mission and supported by tutors and lecturer inputs. We form groups based on the students’ group roles, we ask groups to reflect on their collaboration on a weekly basis and we offer external mediation. This being the students’ first semester at ETH, we consider it the right time for them to learn about their selves as members of a group. To make group collaboration relevant for students, the work they carry out within the group contributes to their overall grades.

Learning how to analyze and identify complex sustainability problems

In “Tackling Environmental Problems”, students learn how to analyse and identify the complex sustainability problems of a Swiss region and how to develop measures to address them in interaction with stakeholders. With our approach, we connect the often-abstract environmental sciences with concrete measures to be implemented in a specific socio-economic context. We give students in the first year of their BSc courses the opportunity to experience the realities of practical problem-solving and of their future professional work. We let students work in very autonomous groups, as we expect learning to be more enduring when students independently select problems and apply methods, and have the possibility to fail forward.

Fostering complex problem solving, stakeholder interaction and group collaboration

The competences we specifically foster are the ability to solve complex problems, stakeholder interaction (service orientation) and group collaboration. In the first semester, we focus on group collaboration. We form groups based on the students’ group roles, we ask groups to reflect on their collaboration on a weekly basis and we offer external mediation. This being the students’ first semester at ETH, we consider it the right time for them to learn about their selves as members of a group.

The grade received for the “Tackling Environmental Problems” course has the same weighting as those for chemistry or maths in the first-year examinations. To make group collaboration relevant for students, the work they carry out within the group contributes to their overall grades. As ETH regulations only allow for 50% of the grade to be awarded for group work, we have also included a peer-to-peer evaluation. This allows us to individualise the group grade in the event that individual group members provide above- or below-average contributions to the group work.

The preparation for such a focus on group collaboration is high, but only in the first year. This is because a clear mission has to be written, the online test has to be set up, the steps have to pe planned and the input on group collaboration has to be prepared. In the following years and during the semester, the amount of effort required for such work is low.

Lesson Sequence






  • Test of group roles
  • Procedure to form groups
  • Mission for group collaboration (including questions for learning journal)
  • Peer-to-peer evaluation


  • Students complete a test about their roles in groups (week 1)
  • The lecturers form 24 groups of 6-7 students. An algorithm is used to mix gender, language and – based on the test results – roles in groups (week 1).
  • Groups are given a detailed mission of what to do until week 14 (week 2). Each group has to research given questions and answer them in a scientifically structured 25-page report.
  • One task of the mission is to write a weekly entry in the learning journal (Lernjournal). Groups have to answer four questions within 2500 characters: What challenges do we face with regard to collaboration? How do the challenges influence our work on the report? How do we address these challenges? In doing so, are we able to overcome the challenges? (starting in week 2). Every third week, students make a short video (max. 1:30 minutes) instead of the written learning journal entry. They talk about what is currently on their minds as a group, where they stand in terms of content and how they are doing.
  • Another task is that groups have to register for, or to actively cancel, an exchange with an external mediator (starting in week 3). The lecturers don’t know anything about these meetings apart from the information provided by the groups in the learning journal.
  • Lecturers give the groups initial feedback on the milestones achieved so far, including the way they reflect collaboration in the learning journal (week 4).
  • Among other milestones, groups develop and submit a working plan, showing how they will achieve all milestones by week 14 (week 6).
  • Lecturers give the groups a second feedback on the milestones achieved so far, including the working plan and the learning journal (week 7).
  • The students within each group evaluate each other on a peer-to-peer basis in terms of attendance, debate culture, responsibility and their own contribution (week 7). Students know that the peer-to-peer evaluation will affect the final grade of a student, if both the mid-term and the end-term evaluation are clearly below or above the group’s average.
  • Lecturers inform students who have been evaluated clearly above the group average about this fact by email. They will also invite students who have been evaluated clearly below the group average to an individual meeting. At the meeting, students explain their view on the evaluation and what they plan to change in the second half of the semester (week 8).
  • Lecturers introduce students to the basic concepts of group collaboration and hand out the results of the group’s role test. Students get to see their own profile and the anonymised profiles of all members of their group (week 8).
  • Groups are asked to answer four specific questions in the learning journal of week 9: How do we imagine an ideal group collaboration? What characterises our current collaboration? What challenges do we face and with which 3-4 measures do we hope to address these challenges?
  • Lecturers give the groups a fourth feedback on the milestones achieved so far, including the learning journal (week 11).
  • Groups submit the scientific report at the end of week 14. In that week’s entry of the learning journal, groups have to reflect on the whole semester. They have to answer questions on the report (which elements of your report do you consider specifically well done? What was difficult? What conclusion would you draw for a subsequent report?) as well as on group collaboration (how would you characterise your group today? Which challenges were you able to address, and which were you unable to address? Would you change any of the measures you formulated in week 9? If so, how would they be different?).



  • Students within each group evaluate each other on a peer-to-peer basis a second time (week 14).
  • Lecturers grade the report (¾ of the final grade) and the group collaboration (¼ of the final grade). The reflections in the learning journal are used to help grade the group collaboration.
  • Lecturers inform students who have been evaluated clearly below or above the group average that their individual grade differs half a grade from the group’s grade. Lecturers discuss students whose evaluation is much higher or lower that the first one. They decide for each of those students whether or not to increase or lower their individual grade by ½ grade. Students who might have their grades lowered are invited for a meeting to clarify the circumstances.


We are aware that not all students like working in groups (which is absolutely fine), but we want students to know after completing this course what is important for successful group work and which strategies they can apply in the event of conflicts.

We support students in acquiring competences in cooperation and teamwork through the following activities:

  • Through the way we form groups (based on role profiles). From the oral exam, we know that students after one year of working in two different groups feel confident in their ability to participate in a group collaboration. Students also know from their own experience that they can fill different roles in groups.
  • Through asking groups to discuss their values regarding collaboration in groups and allowing them to formulate their ideal group and how they could achieve it.
  • Through enabling exchanges and peer learning. This happens during an excursion, collaborative formats such as World Café or when students give feedback on their work.
  • Through the task they have to perform in the group (academic report and presentation). Under time pressure, they need to identify their team’s strengths so that they can work efficiently and see how collaboration works. This is reflected in a weekly learning journal.
  • Through peer-to-peer assessment, students learn to give and receive feedback. As regards the evaluation, we see different patterns. Some groups evaluate each other rather equally, meaning that they all get the same grade at the end. We assume that these groups discuss how to assess each other before the peer-to-peer evaluation. We do not prohibit them from doing so, as we consider such a decision to be an element of how groups identify an ideal collaboration. In groups that evaluate individual students clearly above- or below-average, we see the following two scenarios: Sometimes, the evaluation is not seen as being adequate and fair to the student and the group, and in other times, it is seen as being adequate and fair.
  • Through the way the groups are coached and accompanied in their learning process by tutors (who are themselves only in their 2nd or 3rd BSc year). This creates an atmosphere that builds trust and helps students to address and reflect emotions in the group work.

We also support students in acquiring competences in:

  • Negotiation through the opportunity to talk with an external mediator. Students learn to resolve conflicts and acquire new views on group dynamics.
  • Self-awareness and self-reflection all take place in group processes. The examination of the personal role profile, an individual self-reflection at the end of the semester as well as the oral examination support this process.


We still see the challenge in showing the students what they have learned. So far, this has happened on the basis of the learning journal, individual self-reflection and the oral exam. We think that we could make the intended learning outcomes and related activities more explicit to the students to support reflection. For this reason, we have added short videos to the learning journal entries. When students see these videos at the end of the semester, it will help them to better understand the learning process.

Course Description

Tackling Environmental Problems I & II
In the first semester the students compile what is known about the case topic, its principles and challenges. Each group of students makes an inquiry to a given part of the overall problem. The inquiry includes a thematic as well as stakeholder analysis. The results are written in a report and presented at an internal conference.

During synthesis week, which takes place during semester break, the results of the different part inquiries are integrated. Students learn to combine the methods of systems thinking and design thinking in order to identify specific challenges and develop solutions for them.

In the second semester, students work independently and in exchange with stakeholders on previously identified problems. They develop a sustainability project with concrete measures that they could implement voluntarily in the third semester. The course concludes with the presentation of the student projects on the "Market of Measures".
Students are able to:
- carry out research on a given topic and present the results in a structured report which (a) shows the state of knowledge and (b) the need for knowledge and action.
- to integrate knowledge of diverse perspectives in a qualitative systems model, to identify problems and to suggest possible solutions from a specific stakeholder's perspective.
- name the different roles within a group, explain the role(s) they are suited for, self-organise in groups, identify problems of collaboration and constructively address the problems.
G (lecture with exercise)
approx. 150
D-USYS students
Obligatory, graded semester performance
Teaching Power:
3-4 lecturers, 12 tutors
Group work & oral exam